"If we only pray or meditate when we are in perfect health, we will never be able to produce peace and joy. We have to sign a peace treaty so that we can live in peace with our ill health." - Thich Nhat Hanh
As a pacifist in the war on cancer, I’m not one to use battle analogies when describing the challenges of this diagnosis. The one expression, however, that I think is befitting is, "There are no atheists in foxholes." The obvious explanation for this is that when sitting on the edge of life or death, not only does one believe there is a God, one begins a running dialogue with this higher power; a dialogue commonly known as prayer.
According to a recent CDC study, 69 percent of cancer patients say they pray for their health
. If I had to guess, I would say the other 31 percent are doing the same thing but just call it something else. The study also reveals that, “... people who found feelings of transcendence or meaningfulness or peace reported feeling the least physical problems.”
Therefore, a common expression could be, “There are no nonbelievers in the chemo rooms." This speaks volumes of the connection between spirituality and surviving tough times.
Later on in the article, spirituality is defined as, “A connection to a force larger than oneself.” While many people feel the need to name this “force,” its name is not nearly as important as what it represents — even that pales in comparison to what it can provide those who are facing life’s big questions. During my own treatment, I went with the more-is-better philosophy and connected with as many possible sources of a higher power as I could get my nervously shaking hands on. The list included prayer, yoga, meditation, qi gong, aromatherapy, reiki, bio-energy healing, pranayama and mantras. Being able to draw from this potpourri of options greatly affected my everyday experience, not only of my cancer treatment, but my life as a whole.
When I meet others (in my work as a therapist) who are going through health crises, I will often introduce the topic of spirituality. Knowing that this can be a warning sign to some clients that they have stumbled into a counselor’s office who is going to try to convert them, I reassure them that this topic has been researched and proven to impact their overall well-being. Almost everyone I’ve met has gone on to talk freely about his or her beliefs and how they are helping — or, at times, hindering — their attempts to cope with the crisis.
People’s reaction to their spiritual nature during challenging times fascinates me, and I will always share my own if it seems appropriate for the client. Many people have told me that they’ve leaned heavily on their personal understanding of God and have, in fact, prayed for healing. This always takes me back to my own private moments, surrounded by the dark unknown, trying to compose the perfect prayer. Unless my chemobrain is playing tricks on me, I can say that I never prayed to have my cancer taken away. This is due, mostly, to my career as an anxious person who did not want to have to face the challenge of figuring out what an answer of “no” meant. Instead, I used various practices to calm my wandering mind, short-circuit the stress response, implant the intention to live a life of wellness, and restore a balance between my body and mind. If there was a go-to prayer, it was some version of, “give me the strength to get through this moment.”
Despite doubts, fears and emotional breakdowns, I found this prayer was always answered.
Prayer helps us heal whether we believe in a spiritual realm or not. No single religious faith, dogma, or belief system can lay claim to being the “it” factor when it comes to this healing power. As a student of Eastern philosophies, and a Reiki practitioner, I believe in energy systems and their direct connection to both illness and wellness. As someone brought up in the Christian faith, I also believe in following the guidance of sages, prophets and saints. However we frame our understanding of spirituality, and to whomever or whatever we pray, I believe it is the willingness to let go of our will and rest in the present moment that provides what is needed.
That it often takes a health crisis, or other traumatic life event, to direct our attention to the spiritual realm, should give us pause to reflect on the deeper meaning of illness. It should be no surprise that many cancer patients report awakening to “what’s really important” as a result of their diagnosis. The Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that we should embrace our illness in the same way we embrace our wellness, and find meaning in our suffering. Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me,” and the psychologist Carl Jung said there is no birth of consciousness without pain. If cancer, or any other illness, can help us transmute our suffering into peace, our sorry into joy, then I say “Amen” to that.